Vo Nguyen Giap was born on August 25, 1911 to a townswoman, Nguyen Thi Kien, and her husband, Vo Quang Nghiem, in the tiny village of An Xa, along the banks of the Kien Giang River, subdistrict of Quang Ninh, district of Le Thuy, in the province of Quang Bình in central An Nam, just north of the 17th parallel. He was the sixth of eight children, the first three having died in infancy.
Giap completed his primary education in local schools and in 1925 moved to Hue to study at the Quoc Hoc, or Lycée Nationale. Regarded by school authorities as an agitator, he was expelled in 1927 and worked for a time as a journalist. He also joined the Tan Viet Cach Menh Dang (Revolutionary Party for a New Vietnam), which soon split into two factions. Giap allied himself with the Communist wing and thereafter lived a double life as journalist and secret revolutionary.
Giap was caught in a police dragnet at the end of 1930 and sentenced to serve two years at hard labor at Lao Bao, a French prison in the mountains near Laos. There he met his future wife, 15-year-old Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, daughter of a railroad employee in Vinh. Given an early release, Giap moved to Vinh, into the home of Professor Dang Thai Mai, a former teacher of literature at the Quoc Hoc. There he met Mai's daughter, Dang Bich Ha, a toddler, born in 1919, who called him Chu (Uncle) and who one day would became his second wife.
After moving to Hanoi, Giap studied at the Lycée Albert Sarraut, graduating in 1934. Thereupon he accepted a job as teacher of history and French at Lycée Thang Long (Rising Dragon). He simultaneously published a newspaper, Hon Tre Tap Moi (Soul of Youth, new edition), which was shut down by authorities after its fifth issue. Thereupon Giap published Le Travail (Work) and initiated at least 11 other short-lived journals. He also began studies at the School of Law of the University of Hanoi, and in 1938 he received his license en droit with a concentration in political economy.
Giap joined the Communist Party in 1937, and sometime before April 1939 married Quang Thai. In early 1940, they had a daughter, Hong Anh (Red Queen of Flowers). In April 1940, the party ordered him to flee into southern China. He left behind his wife and daughter, never again to see Quang Thai, who was arrested by the French in May 1941 and tortured to death in Hoa Lo (The Oven) prison in Hanoi.
Traveling with Pham Van Dong, Giap reached southern China and there met Nguyen Ai Quoc, now calling himself Ho Che Minh. Under Ho's orders, Giap returned to the mountains of northern Tonkin between 1941 and 1945 and, with his cadre, worked among the hill tribes (Nung, Tho, Man Trang, Man Tien, Tay [Tai], Dao, Hmong, and others), converting them to the anti-French cause. One of his followers, Chu Van Tan, became a leader in the first armed resistance organization, the Army for National Salvation. Meanwhile Hô organized a new group, the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Vietnam Independence League), or Viet Minh. Its rivals for power included the Dang Dai Viet, a nationalist middle-class urban group; the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, an older group founded in 1927 by radical intellectuals; and the Viet Nam Cach Menh Dong Minh Hoi, founded in 1942 under Chinese sponsorship.
Giap's Viêt Minh cadres were most successful in enlisting support among both lowland Vietnamese and hill people. He insisted on a successful but very rigid code of conduct for his agents. French efforts between 1942 and 1944 to destroy this fledgling movement came to be called the time of the "white terror."
On December 22, 1944 Giap formed 34 men into the Viet Nam Tuyen Truyen Giai Phong Quan (Vietnam Armed Propaganda and Liberation Brigade). First attacks against the French came on December 24 when Giap's unit struck outposts at Phai Khat and Na Ngan. During a later attack on the town of Thai Nguyen on August 20, 1945, Giap learned that the Japanese had surrendered, and he marched his men into Hanoi. Between August 19 and 30, Ho's Viet Minh grabbed power from the Red River to the Mekong Delta. Giap became minister of the interior of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and was later named to the rank of full general and commander of all Viêt Minh military forces.
Military incidents with the French in Tonkin, particularly at Hai Phong, caused Giap to issue a national call to arms on December 19, 1946. Retreating in the face of French strength, by early 1947 the Viet Minh government and Giap's army were once again hiding in the remote fastnesses of northern Vietnam. In the next years Giap put together an army of nearly 300,000 troops and militia and made a series of attacks against French troops and positions, sometimes sustaining savage casualties. In 1953 he launched a drive into Laos, having already gained control of most of central and northern Vietnam outside the coastal lowlands. French military commander General Henri Navarre, seeking a "set-piece" battle with Giap's forces, chose to commit 10,000 troops to an isolated valley in northwest Vietnam astride Giap's line of communication to Laos at Dienbienphu.
Giap secretly brought recently obtained artillery into the surrounding mountains, a development the French considered impossible. He also massed 50,000 troops and laid siege for 55 days to French strong points in the valley. The French surrendered on May 8, 1954 and, at Geneva, gave up further efforts to control Vietnam north of the 17th parallel.
Giap also led the military campaign against the southern Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Giap, like Mao, believed that revolutionary warfare against a government passed through three stages: guerrilla warfare, strategic defense, and counteroffensive. Giap was long concerned that the United States might invade the North and, when he believed his forces strong enough, frequently orchestrated frontal attacks on U.S. positions, as in the la Drang Valley (November 1965), at Khe Sanh (January 1968), and in the Tet Offensive (January 1968). Militarily opposed to the latter, he bowed before the greater political influence of Le Duan, "the Flame of the South," General Nguyen Chi Thanh, and their allies in the Politburo. These individuals, all dedicated to the overthrow of the RVN, faulted Giap for his reticence to use his units boldly below the 17th parallel and consistently called for increased military action in the South.
The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong and forced the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops to carry the burden of the war. Still, Têt was a strategic victory for the Communists, even if a tactical defeat. Following Ho's death (September 2, 1969), Giap shared power with Le Duan, who controlled domestic affairs, and Pham Van Dong, who presided over the Foreign Ministry. Giap's goals were to prolong the war, to inflict setbacks to U.S. President Richard Nixon's policy of Vietnamization, and to impose continuing casualties on U.S. troops. Not until 1970 did Giap order new offensives, concentrating on the conquest of southern Laos and destabilization of Cambodia's border region.
In 1972, with some dismay because he felt the time was not yet ripe, Giap planned his Nguyen Hue, or Easter Offensive. The Politburo had called for the offensive, assuming that, with U.S. forces all but withdrawn, the Republic of Vietnam was ripe for attack. Once again Giap's misgivings were proven correct. Throughout most of the RVN, after initial withdrawals, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) held its positions when buttressed with massive American air strikes. Nixon also ordered extensive bombings of the DRV and mining of Hai Phong Harbor. The PAVN suffered more than 100,000 casualties. Still, when it was over, Giap's divisions occupied territory never before controlled, and the terms of the 1973 peace agreement did not require their removal.
Ironically, although he retained his post of minister of defense, the Politburo then stripped Giap—who had opposed the entire offensive—of his command of the PAVN and gave it to his chief of staff and longtime disciple, General Van Tien Dung. It was Dung who led the Ho Chi Minh offensive, the final assault on the South in 1975. Thereafter Giap's life consisted of a round of visits to countries, most of which were Communist: Cuba, Algeria, the USSR, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, China, Yemen, Madagascar, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Guinea, Benin, Congo, and Angola. Appointed to head the Ministry of Science and Technology, Giap opposed the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and played only a supervisory role in it and in the conflict with China that began in 1979. In 1986 Giap retired as minister of defense, and in August 1991 he was forced to give up his remaining post as vice premier in charge of family planning. Now viewed as a "national treasure," Giap lives quietly with his wife at their villa, appearing on ceremonial occasions, but closely watched by his government, which fears he might lead a military coup against it. Cecil B. Currey
Currey, Cecil B. Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1997: 803.; Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988.; Va n Tiên Du ng. Our Great Spring Victory. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.; Vo Nguyên Giáp, interviews with the author, December 1988 and July 1991. Who's Who in the Socialist Countries. New York: Saur, 1978.; Vo Nguyên Giáp. Dien Bien Phu. Hà Nôi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962.; Vo Nguyên Giáp. Unforgettable Days. Hà Nôi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1978.
Cecil B. Currey